“My dad’s my hero,” says Portland filmmaker Thad Smith. “It’s funny, I’m 47 years old, and he’s the kind of man I want to grow up to be.”
In honor of Veterans Day, Film Oregon Alliance is offering a free screening of the gift Thad Smith — with help from his older brother, writer Craig Smith — made for his father: “Everyman’s War.” A feature-length film about the Battle of the Bulge and one man’s role in it, will screen Wednesday at the Tower Theatre in Bend (see “If you go”).
According to Thad Smith, their father, Don Smith, 84, served in the 94th Infantry Division during World War II and the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was during this battle that my father was wounded saving a company of men from certain death as enemy tanks and German infantry overran their position on a hillside outside” the town of Nennig, Germany, he says in his director’s statement. “As there was no communication, the command post (CP) some distance away was unaware of the coming assault. Unarmed and wounded, Sgt. Smith made his way through enemy fire to alert the CP of the approaching German offensive.”
For his part, Don Smith was awarded a Purple Heart, the French Croix de Guerre (“cross of war”) and, later, the Bronze Star, according to the film’s official Web site.
“I’d heard the story about my dad’s experiences in the war since I was a little kid,” Smith told The Bulletin on Wednesday. “I’m sure they were tailored to be age-appropriate as I grew up, but as I learned more about it, I went, ‘Wow, this is pretty heroic and interesting.’”
“He did some things, like all those guys did, that just amaze me. I just think about the time and the things that they must have been feeling,” Smith says.
Smith is not entirely new to filmmaking. After pounding the drums for a decade in the alternative band Ten Pound Rain, Smith moved into producing for commercials, then directing them.
In 1999, he co-founded One-Eighty Films, a commercial production company that evolved into an ad agency.
“About that time, I’m like, ‘I’ve got the chops under my belt, and I’ve done this for a while now, so maybe now’s the time to tell this story,” Smith says.
Originally intended to be a short battle film, “Everyman’s War” grew into a 104-minute feature.
Or, “a $50,000 project turned into a $750,000 project,” Smith says, laughing. “There were so many people who said, ‘This deserves more emphasis on the story,’ and it just morphed into a feature.”
The film was shot in locations around Oregon during 2008 and 2009, including the forests around Mount Hood as well as sets built on Smith’s 10 acres in the hills outside of Portland, his family’s hometown.
Mountain View High School graduate Cole Carson, 27, stars in the role of Don Smith. Carson, a 2004 University of Oregon graduate, moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to pursue acting. Smith decided to cast him for his quiet demeanor.
Also, “I looked at the back of his stat sheet, and it said his birthday was Jan. 20, and Jan. 20 was the exact day my dad was shot in Nennig, Germany. And I thought, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m going to do it,’” Smith recalls.
Thad Smith says his commercial direction skills translated well. “It’s really not that different. I had a lot more freedom to create more character arc,” he explains.
If anything, he says, commercials may be harder to make, “because they’re like little films. You’ve got to connect with the viewer in 30 or 60 seconds, and create an emotional impact to cause a reaction.”
“I have a theory that I’ve kind of put together for myself, that it’s emotion, connection, reaction,” he says. “If you can emotionally connect with somebody, you can cause them to have a reaction, for whatever you want to do, whether you want to make them cry, or whether you want to make them buy.”
Still, there was a challenge: “My dad’s one of those guys; he doesn’t like to talk about himself or the war. In fact, interviewing him for the story, I really had to take it in baby steps,” Smith says. “His biggest thing, when I told him I wanted to do this, he said, ‘I don’t want myself portrayed as a hero. Because I just did what everybody had to do.’ He just doesn’t want people to think of him like that.”
“There’s no glory that they’re looking for,” Smith observes. “I don’t think I’ve ever met one veteran who was boastful,” Smith says. “But he told me, ‘I think about it every day.’”
“I thought, what an interesting man, that he could come back and think about people he lost, friends he was with, the things he did, and live a life where he had kids and a house, and he was the best dad you could ever have. And they just put that stuff away,” he says.
“My biggest hope is that people look at this not only as a film about my dad, but a film about the sacrifices all these men made that get taken for granted every day.”